And on with the royal commission
It’s time for me to wrap up our coverage of reaction to Four Corners’ program into youth detention in the Northern Territory, but here’s what the day has brought us.
- The shocking footage of abuse of children in detention facilities in the NT on Four Corners on Monday night prompted the prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, to announce a royal commission hours after the program aired
- The NT chief minister, Adam Giles, today took over the corrections portfolio from John Elferink
- Both Giles and the NT police commissioner, Reece Kershaw, said they had not seen the footage broadcast on Four Corners before
- Kershaw also announced the creation of a special task force into the claims made by the Four Corners program, which would investigated whether any criminal offences had been committed
- Questions have been raised as to how much the state and federal governments knew about the abuse, given significant problems in the NT’s juvenile detention facilities have been reported by both media and government-appointed investigators
- Many of the children that featured in the program – including Dylan Voller, who was filmed strapped to a chair – are suing the NT government for their treatment within the detention system
- Unicef Australia has raised the possibility that the treatment of the children shown “may amount to torture by the government responsible for their care”
- In recent hours, eight prisoners at the Alice Springs adult correctional facility have climbed on the roof to stage a protest, though it is not known whether it is related to the Four Corners program
- Both the prime minister and Gillian Triggs of the Australian Human Rights Commission want the royal commission to act quickly; an interim report is slated for as early as September, while a final one will be due in January
- One outcome is likely to be a delay to the same-sex marriage plebiscite, though it’s hard to link directly to this royal commission when Turnbull signalled last week that that might not be happen until 2018
- My colleagues Ben Doherty, Paul Karp, and Guardian Australia’s political editor Katharine Murphy collaborated on this latest news story, which says a commissioner is likely to be appointed soon
Rest assured we will be continuing to cover this story in the coming days, weeks, and – as the royal commission gets under way – months. In the meantime, thanks for following along with today’s coverage.
Eight prisoners at the Alice Springs adult correctional facility have climbed on the roof to stage a protest. Both the Northern Territory police and the Department of Corrections have confirmed the incident, and I’ve been told there were no weapons or injuries involved, but a police negotiator has been called in.
It’s not known why they are there or if it’s connected to the juvenile detention story, but it’s worth remembering that the NT corrections system as a whole frequently sees incidents, escapes and disturbances.
This New Matilda piece by Chris Graham raises the valid question: the Four Corners footage shows how authorities behave when they know they’re being recorded. “Can you imagine how they behave when they think they’re not?”
This is an interview from October last year, with the former NT corrections commissioner, Ken Middlebrook, on ABC Darwin. The interview took place just after the Children’s commissioner’s report was released.
Let’s cut to the chase. He seems to be misinformed, at the very least, about the level of teargassing.
Middlebrook tells ABC radio the incident needs to be “looked at in context”, and dismisses the preceding news report about the commissioner’s findings.
He accuses the report of being one-sided, unfair and unbalanced. He tells the radio host it was “very shallow and doesn’t really address the issues, and there are inaccuracies in that report”.
He defends the use of teargas against children locked in cells and again says “let’s get this into context”.
“It wasn’t tear gas canisters. There were two sprays from an aerosol into the area. That wasn’t overuse of gas.
“Nearly 38 years I’ve been a corrections officer, and I’ve used gas very few times in that 38 years … On the evening when I arrived there it was out of control.
“The picture that was painted by that grab a while ago, where there was someone running around in a common area and other kids were playing cards in a cell. Let me tell you, those other kids in those other cells, wrecked those cells to the point that they were inoperable.”
“These were fair dinkum young hoodlums,” he later said. “These young men were throwing shards of glass at staff.”
On Vita’s report, his description of the “serious incident” on the evening of 21 August 2014 in the Behavioural Management Unit of the former Don Dale facility is significantly at odds with that shown on the CCTV and handy-cam footage broadcast by Four Corners. (You can watch the clip here.)
I’ve highlighted the discrepancies between the two accounts in square brackets, but it’s important to take them in the context of what Vita was asked by the NT government to investigate, and the issues he said he encountered (such as footage being withheld) in the process.
“A detainee had managed to damage his room and ultimately was able to get out of that room and into the BMU open area. [His door had been left unlocked, which Vita later clarifies.] All available exits soon after became inaccessible and a dangerous situation existed if staff were to force entry.
“The other BMU detainees, who were still locked in their rooms, continued to damage their rooms and attempted to break out themselves as well as arming themselves with various stabbing and cutting implements, gained from damaging their rooms. [At least two could be seen on the CCTV footage calmly playing cards before the tear gas was deployed.] Other detainees in the main centre became excited after being incited.
“The threat to management was that other detainees, not directly associated with the five in the BMU, could become involved, possibly get out of their rooms and partake in a much larger disturbance.
“As a result of this, local staff and other more specialised staff from the adjoining correctional centre arrived at Don Dale BMU and began exploring different options to bring this incident under control. Unfortunately, due to the nature of the infrastructure and the inability to get inside without risking the safety of other staff, there only appeared to be two other options:
- to use the correctional services K9 dog that was stationed with the staff
- to use a short sharp burst of CS gas.
“Onsite during this incident was the Commissioner for Northern Territory Department of Correctional Services, the Director of YDCs and the Executive Director, Youth Justice. As a result of consultation during the course of the incident and after exploring all the options available, the Commissioner, Ken Middlebrook, made a decision to use CS gas to bring the situation to a halt after constant attempts to resolve the incident peacefully were met with defiance by the detainees.
“As a result two short sharp bursts of CS gas were used, the detainee R immediately succumbed. [The ABC reports that the CTV footage shows 10 bursts of tear gas were sprayed into the enclosed area over 90 seconds.] The area was made safe and staff, particularly local staff, then immediately decanted detainee R and the other four detainees held in the BMU rooms, decontaminated them and took them outside so as to receive relief from the effects of the gas. No further injury to staff or detainees occurred.
[Again from that ABC report: “One boy is left in his cell and exposed to tear gas for eight minutes. He is seen lying face down on the floor with his hands behind his back, before being handcuffed by two prison officers wearing gas masks and dragged out of his cell.”]”
Vita concluded his assessment of the incident by urging “those who seek to criticise these actions take into consideration” a number of factors, including the volatile situation, the poor infrastructure that limited staff’s options, and the refusal of the first detainee “to mediate”.
Some of the children in the BMU were among the five that had successfully escaped the Don Dale facility three weeks before the teargassing incident. “If this incident was not finalised quickly ... this could once again be a threat to the community,” wrote Vita.
“... The safest option to bring the disturbance to a halt and provide safety to all involved, including the community, was assessed to be to use two sharp bursts of gas.
“The review considers that the actions of the Northern Territory Commissioner in this aspect were justifiable.”
Figures from Save the Children estimate that incarcerating young Indigenous offenders – who comprise the majority of detained young offenders – costs the Australian taxpayer $240 million a year: nearly $1,400 per day, per detainee.
It’s from a different budget, but it’s a stark comparison nonetheless: $300m in funding for Indigenous programs was ripped out of the 2014 federal budget.
The detainment of young offenders was not only a broken system but “grotesquely wasteful”, said the organisation’s director of public affairs and policy, Mat Tinkler.
“These astronomical figures are symbolic of so much of the disadvantage Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people continue to face ...
“It clearly makes moral and financial sense to dramatically reduce the number of young [people] locked up in youth detention. We want to see taxpayer funds invested in programs that prevent youth offending and help Indigenous young people build brighter futures, not paying for prison cells.
“And we never again want to see the horrific abuse of children disclosed at Don Dale.”
Let’s take a look at that Michael Vita report that has been cited several times today. The former Long Bay prison boss was tasked by the NT government in October last year with reviewing its youth detention system.
You can read the 65-page document here. Vita did “not find any evidence of a systemic culture of non-reporting”.
But he wrote that he and the former children’s commissioner, Dr Howard Bath, found that the detention staff’s failure to provide CCTV or video footage and “apparent untruthful comments made in a statutory declaration” were among the issues in both their investigations.
Some contributing factors were identified in incidents that were not managed well by staff, wrote Vita:
- poor supervision
- lack of experience of staff
- lack of training, especially in crisis management and behaviour management
- poor communication and relay of intelligence information
- lack of appropriate direction and procedures
- sloppy security awareness
- immature responses by some staff to detainee behaviour
- lack of a comprehensive structured day, which includes elements of work, programming, recreation, cleanliness, hygiene and schooling
- inadequate infrastructure and equipment
“None of this was new at all,” Priscilla Collins, the chief executive of the North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency, has told the media in Darwin.
Echoing the comments made by many today, she said the transcript of Four Corners’ footage was included in the report into the NT youth detention system by Michael Vita, released in January this year.
She refuted the explanation given by the chief minister, Adam Giles, that there was a “culture of cover-up”.
“Those investigations have the full transcript of the video footage that everyone saw last night, so when you have the chief minister and the attorney general say that they are shocked, they can’t be shocked. They had access to this report and that footage years ago.”
She said ministers in power have been “lying directly to the public”.
Nigel Scullion said the prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, rang him after the broadcast last night, “fairly agitated”, when he was out to dinner.
“The PM rang me, fairly agitated, and said, ‘Have you said it?’ And I said, ‘No, mate.’ He said, ‘You better go home and see it. Give me a ring.’ So when I did see it, it shocked me to the core.”
He said he had never seen the footage before: “You don’t know what you don’t know.” He did admit to being “disappointed” that he was not briefed by the NT government on inquiries into abuse within Don Dale.
“I cannot understand why apparently so many people knew and yet here we are today – until there is a Four Corners expose on the matter, we were unable to act in the way that we should have.”
He said it was important not to conflate the issues of Aboriginal deaths in custody, the subject of a royal commission 25 years ago, and the issue of juvenile detention in the NT today.
“But some of the learnings are ... is that this is a closed shop, this is a prison, nothing is transparent, and yet we now know that there can be circumstances in that environment that are just unthinkably evil, so in the future we need to find ways that ensure that this is all transparent.
“Just because it has horrible walls and we can’t see in, it doesn’t mean that the level of transparency ... doesn’t need to be substantially increased and I think that’s one of the fundamentals of the royal commission.”
He said he had “utter confidence” in the royal commission process.
The Indigenous affairs minister, Nigel Scullion, has conveyed his “sense of shock” at the Four Corners broadcast to the media from Canberra.
“It was some of the most disturbing footageI have ever seen, I have ever seen. And it beggars belief that the people that we put in charge of scaring for vulnerable children in detention and – that’s right – caring for them and looking after their welfare were in fact brutalising those children.”
He also speculated that brutal treatment such as that documented at the Don Dale correctional facility was “in fact a part of the problem” of recidivism rates among youth who have entered in the justice system.
“Certainly I took away from the Four Corners report that we actually have a system that says if you’re going to self-harm ... somehow the most helpful thing to do is to tie you down and put a bag on your head, and if that is world’s best practice – well, I am just stunned.”
He also said it was “extremely distressing” to see how confident the officers filmed mistreating teenagers in detention were as they “went about their business”.
“There was no concern about cameras. There was no, ‘Oh, we need to be a bit cautious about that’, or a rule book or something.
“They knew that their behaviour was clearly not right, it was evil, but they also knew they had absolutely no chance of that being a problem to anyone, such was the culture of cover-up, such was the culture of brutality, and those sort of cultures push away people who want to help.”
The ABC has expressed concerns to Facebook over its removal of one clip over concerns it displays child nudity.
Facebook removed two clips posted to the Four Corners Facebook page showing the abuse of children in detention in the Northern Territory after they were reported by members of the public. One was subsequently reinstated on closer review by the platform, but the other contravenes its community standards – specifically, its policy about child nudity.
A Facebook spokesman said no nudity of minors could be shared on its platform, “even if they are shared with the purpose of condemning it”.
But the ABC’s director of news, Gaven Morris, said ABC News had given “careful consideration to publishing these images, which were evidence of the mistreatment of a child and not in any way gratuitious”.
He said he believed the images’ publication to be “strongly in the public interest ... We have expressed our concerns to Facebook about their handling of this matter.”
Tanya Plibersek, the acting leader of the opposition, told reporters in Melbourne that she found Four Corners’ report “shocking”.
“I think any Australian – any human being, anywhere would have been shocked by the footage. ... It is impossible to think that this has been happening in the Northern Territory for a number of years.”
She said Labor supported the royal commission and expected to be involved in setting its terms with the government. “It is absolutely vital that we get to the bottom of what was happening in this detention facility.”
But she hoped that in the coming days – weeks – that scrutiny would be applied far more broadly than Don Dale.
“I think we have a deeper responsibility as a society and as a community to ask ourselves how it is that 10, 11-year-old boys ended up in the juvenile justice system in the first place.
“How have they been let down by the broader community, by schools, by their families? What is it that has led them to the troubled lives and the behaviour that has taken them into contact with the juvenile justice system?”
Mark Dreyfus, the shadow attorney general, said, for this reason, Labor urged the government ensure the royal commission is a “full examination” of the NT’s juvenile justice system.
“It shouldn’t just be confined to the particular prison where these young boys were kept – in fact where these young boys were tortured. We need to make sure that it is a systemic inquiry.”
Labor’s Closing the Gap strategy sought to deliver a national solution to disproportionately high rates of Indigenous incarceration and victimisation rates, which it said had reached a “crisis point”.
Plibersek would not comment on whether NT officials knew enough to act before Four Corners publicised the footage: “I think that is exactly the sort of question a royal commission would look at.”
Tanya Plibersek, the acting leader of the opposition; Mark Dreyfus, the shadow attorney general; and Nigel Scullion, the Indigenous affairs minister, have all spoken on ABC News 24 – their comments soon.
Northern Territory youth detention: no excuse for not knowing of abuse
Helen Davidson, Guardian Australia’s Darwin correspondent, has been across this subject for some time. In her analysis of the territory’s response to the Four Corners report today, she says anyone in authority in either the state or federal governments has “no excuse” for not knowing what was going on in Don Dale.
“The territory government has been relentlessly questioned by local media, endlessly lobbied and pleaded with by justice agencies, commissioners and regulators, and subject to damning findings by numerous inquiries – including one it commissioned itself.
“In October last year the director of Human Rights Watch wrote in Fairfax newspapers: ‘What happened at Don Dale and [the adult jail used for juveniles at] Berrimah is a classic example of how not to deal with troubled youth. Excessive use of force, isolation and shackling of children is barbaric and inhumane. What makes it even more appalling is that the Northern Territory’s children’s commissioner exposed some of these issues last year, and yet the abusive practices persist.’
“Each time a new incident in youth detention came to light, the Country Liberal party government – a scandal-plagued unicameral parliament – has responded defensively and unapologetically.
“Howard Bath, the former NT children’s commissioner, told ABC radio on Tuesday he had shown the 2014 footage of Voller stripped and beaten to the government. The existence of that footage was reported by the ABC at the time. Bath said he believed the government would have also had access to the rest of the footage shown on Four Corners.
“But John Elferink, the NT attorney general, who on Tuesday was stood aside as corrections minister, told Four Corners he had not seen the video of guards teargassing the youths and remarking they would ‘pulverise the fuckers’.
“Even if he had not seen it, he had heard the exact words, seen them printed in black and white in Bath’s report, heard them repeated back to him at press conferences and in media reports.
“Presented with evidence of abuse allegations at press conferences, or questioned after yet another escape or incident, Elferink has followed a pattern. The government does not resile from its tough on crime approach – these ‘little darlings’, these ‘thugs’, these ‘grown men essentially’, have brought it upon themselves with their repeated criminal behaviour.”
Read more from Helen’s analysis:
Unicef Australia has raised the possibility that prolonged periods of solitary confinement, strip searches and unjustifiable force of children in detention “may amount to torture by the government responsible for their care”.
Among the common consequences of such treatment it flagged are anxiety, depression, insomnia, psychosis, extreme paranoia, cognitive delays and psychosis.
The Australian government is a signatory to the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the International Covenant on the Civil and Political Rights, while international law sets clear guidance on matters relating to children and detention.
Under those obligations, says Unicef, children should only ever be detained in juvenile detention as a last resort and all decisions that affect them must take their best interests into account.
While it welcomes the royal commission, it has called for the federal and state governments to revisit the recommendations of the royal commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody 25 years ago and fund intervention measures for children at risk of ending up in the justice system.
Children who are detained need access to counselling and support, while those who have experienced acts that “could amount to torture” need access to justice.
“There is no avenue for rehabilitation of children in institutions with cruel and degrading treatment.”
On the failure of the NT justice system to break the cycle of youth reoffending, Ruth Barson’s comment piece in the Sydney Morning Herald today is relevant. She’s the director of legal advocacy at the Human Rights Law Centre.
“I have known one of the young people who featured in Monday’s Four Corners episode for close to a decade. I was his lawyer when he first came into contact with the criminal justice system. I know that there were countless missed opportunities for positive rather than punitive intervention in his life: for the system to make things better for him, rather than worse.
But he was failed. Too often, the youth justice system is a slippery slope of failure.”
As has already been mentioned, there’s a election coming up in the NT in August and these recent reports will only bring the statewide issue of incarceration rates to the fore.
A coalition of social services and community and legal organisations has called for both sides of politics in the state to address its justice crisis and last week publicised a wish list of six demands. Those are:
- an Aboriginal justice agreement
- specialist and therapeutic courts
- improved rehabilitation and reintegration services
- a reduction in youth incarceration
- the abolition of mandatory sentencing
- a comprehension plan to deal with alcohol
In an interview with my colleague and Darwin correspondent Helen Davidson, John Adams, the general manager of the Jesuit Social Services in Alice Springs, said diversionary measures were of pivotal importance when it came to youth reoffending.
He said, without a response that broke the cycle, quite often offending “escalates to a point where a custodial sentence is the only option”.
Inconsistent funding and operation of youth services in the NT also disrupt social workers’ ability to build relationships with troubled youth and steer them back on track.
You can read more about the Making Justice Work campaign here.
“The majority of Australians have the privilege of never having to seriously ask ‘what if that was my child?’”
Kathleen Heath calls for the end of youth detention centres in an opinion piece for Guardian Australia.
Labor’s Malarndirri McCarthy, a NT senator, has vowed to do her bit to ensure that the royal commission is wide-ranging and has strong terms of reference, and that its subsequent recommendations are implemented.
The first step, she said, was to close the Don Dale facility – but high rates of incarceration, homelessness and suicide would be a focus of her work as a senator.
McCarthy replaced Nova Peris, who resigned in May.
The Australian Greens view John Elferink’s being stripped of the corrections portfolio as a sacking, and say it’s appropriate.
Richard Di Natale, the party leader, says the royal commission must have wide terms of reference to determine the full extent of the problem in the NT and elsewhere in Australia.
He also called on Adam Giles to provide immediate assurances that there is no longer abuse going on in juvenile detention and that young people who have been traumatised under government supervision are being supported.
(Giles did say in the press conference just before that he would be making contact with the children featured in the Four Corners report “to not only see where they’re at” but to interview them about the incidents of abuse. Dylan Voller, the child filmed strapped to the chair wearing a spit hood, is currently in an adult prison.)
Di Natale said detention should be the “option of absolute last resort for children” but rates were increasing in the NT, and particularly of Indigenous Australian youth.
The Greens spokeswoman on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander affairs, Senator Rachel Siewert, said there would be lifelong impacts on these young people.
“It is highly likely that this is not an isolated incident and reflects a culture of detention in the Northern Territory. It is no wonder that we don’t see progress in closing the gap in these circumstances.”
That very lengthy press conference with Adam Giles, the NT chief minister, has just concluded. He did not diminish the horror of what was broadcast on Four Corners, nor shirk the responsibility and failure of corrections; in fact, as of now, he’s taken over that portfolio from John Elferink.
(Elferink remains the state’s attorney general and its justice minister and its children and families minister and its health minister and its disability services minister and its mental health services minister – so it’s by no means a sacking, as many called for.)
But Giles did say that much of the Four Corners report was news to him, including that shocking footage of Dylan Voller strapped to the chair with a spit hood over his face. The police commissioner, Reece Kershaw, said the same.
Media grilled the two of them over that assertion pretty intensely – given it was reportedly referred to by the former children’s commissioner, Howard Bath, in his investigation into that incident two years ago.
Several journalists pointed out that much of what the Four Corners investigation showed wasn’t new and had been widely been reported by both media and government-appointed investigators.
Even the “culture of cover-up”, to which Giles referred repeatedly by way of explanation, has been repeatedly cited as a factor in reports about the abuse of youth in detention.
Liberal MP and former Australian Human Rights Commissioner, Tim Wilson, told Guardian Australia the Don Dale royal commission should be “as broad as it needs to be to get to the bottom of cultural issues in detention” and should “make sure no stone is left unturned”.
Wilson said there was both the “very specific issue of the evidence of how some people have been treated [in Don Dale]” and the broader issue of the very high percentage of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in Northern Territory prisons.
Indigenous youths are over 24 times more likely to be in detention than non-Indigenous youths. In the NT, 98 per cent of youth detainees are Indigenous.
Wilson said the broader pattern of Aboriginal incarceration might need to be dealt with separately to the royal commission, but he would take counsel on that before forming a settled view.
'The MO of the NT government is shoot the messenger'
Gillian Triggs says there is significant international interest in Australia’s “failure to deal with a problem we have known about a long time”, pointing to questions about the issue of the incarceration of Aboriginal Australians raised at the United Nations’ Universal Periodic Review.
“We’ve been a good international citizen but, over the last 15 years or so, we’ve seen a real decline in the commitment to the rule of law in Australia.”
The national children’s commissioner, Megan Mitchell, says conditions at the Don Dale centre near Darwin are “extremely poor ... It is an ageing facility designed as a maximum security detention facility for adults.”
She described her lasting impression as “one of cage wire and cement”.
“The MO of the NT government is this: shoot the messenger, discredit the report and demonise these kids, so people out of the street think it’s okay for that to happen to these kids.”
Mick Gooda, the social justice and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander minister, was emotional when he addressed media.
“Our people have known about things like this, have advocated so hard, and to just see it laid bare in front of us last night must be a wake-up call to everyone in Australia – that something’s got to be done about the way we lock our people up in this country, and particularly the way we lock our kids up.
“What we saw last night is an absolute disgrace.”
Gooda said Australians need to examine the underlying causes of why these children are being detained. “I refuse to believe our kids are the most criminal kids in the world, just as I refuse to believe our people are the most criminal.”
Triggs – who, it must be noted, is under no illusions about how low conditions in juvenile detention can go – said she was “shocked to point of speechlessness” by the revelations from Don Dale detention centre.
On top of those 180,000 views of the clip on Facebook – my colleague Amanda Meade informs me that a total of 723,000 people watched Four Corners in the metropolitan market alone, according to the OzTAM ratings report.
When the regional numbers are added the figure will be closer to 1 million – and the catchup TV numbers on iView are expected to be very high.
Facebook restores one Four Corners clip
One of the clips removed by Facebook has been restored following closer review. The other cannot be restored because it contains child nudity. Both were reported to the platform by members of the public – the usual way content is policed.
From a Facebook spokesman:
“These videos were reported to us by members of the Australian public and our community operations team promptly reviewed and removed them for containing child nudity. Upon further review, we have restored one of the videos because it does not contain such imagery. We review millions of reports each week and, from time to time, we make a mistake and work to rectify this where we become aware of this.
“The second video does contain child nudity and so we cannot restore it. Our community standards do not allow any nudity of minors to be shared on our services, even if they are shared with the purpose of condemning it.”
This is the clip that’s been restored. It’s interesting to note that Facebook seems to have managed to restore the original clip that was posted last night, meaning its 2000 shares and 180,000+ views have not been lost.
Adam Giles: “The best form of youth program there is is the love of a parent. ... In the Northern Territory, there are too many children who are unloved.”
It seems quite a long bow to draw from footage of teenage boy strapped to a chair for two hours but there you have it. More to the point, as Gillian Triggs said earlier: children in detention are in a loco parentis relationship with the state.
A reporter made this point to Giles, to which he said: “First and foremost, parental love and parental care is the best form of action that can be taken for a child and too often in the Northern Territory that doesn’t occur. We all skirt around the issues, we know we do, and that’s why we’re putting it as part of the royal commission inquiry.”
(Triggs and the national children’s commissioner, Megan Mitchell, and the social justice commissioner, Mick Gooda, are speaking to media in Sydney right now. My colleague Ben Doherty is there – I’ll update you on their comments soon.)
A journalist to Adam Giles:
“Pretty much every incident featured on Four Corners has been described in a report that has been released or discussed publicly by the government – the culture of cover-up was discussed in reports released publicly by the government. Investigations have been conducted, as you’ve just said, by corrections, by police.
“Yet you’re standing here and saying you haven’t seen that footage.
“How can you expect people to take you seriously? And, if you haven’t seen it, isn’t it a dereliction of duty that, given you were in possession of those reports, you didn’t look for it?”
“We’ve seen over a long period of time there has been evidence given ... that there has been deficiencies in the youth detention system. Every time something’s come forward we’ve either referred it to police, we’ve sought to find out what the problems were and sought to fix the issues.
“In regards to previous reports by current and previous children’s commissioners about the culture of cover-up, yes, we’ve gone and made changes in that regard and I think that where we are now is the system is much better than what it was in 2014, 2012 and 2010.
“The reason we’re getting somebody to come in immediately and have a look at whether or not we still have issues is so that we can tick that off.”
Adam Giles is now taking questions from the media.
He is insisting that he had never seen the Four Corners footage before: “I can tell you that this vision was new to me. I have never seen that vision that was on television last night ... What came out last night was new information that I understand that both the police nor attorneys general had been aware of in the past.”
Several journalists are expressing scepticism over this, making the point that abuse in juvenile detention – even many of the specific incidents documented by Four Corners – has been investigated and reported, by media and government-appointed investigators, over a long period.
One journalist – I believe Kate Wild of ABC Darwin – says at least John Elferink and Ken Middlebrook were aware of the material in the program: “Ken Middlebrook had shown me some of that vision himself in his office.”
Giles refutes her suggestion that the government had no idea about what was happening in Don Dale. He says all information of abuse in juvenile detention that had been provided to the government in the past had been sent “for a review or police investigation”.
In response to a question asking why he had not seen the footage, Giles reiterated that there has clearly been a “culture of cover-up ... for a very long time”.
Adam Giles said he watched Four Corners with “horror”.
“What we saw was vision of young Territorians in custody who were supposed to be seeking ... an opportunity for rehabilitation and I think it’s certain, by looking at that vision, that that wasn’t always the case.”
He said that the issue went beyond the state’s corrections system to encompass several parts of government, such as child protection and youth justice – compounded by a wide-reaching “culture of cover-up”.
“I think over time there has most certainly been a culture of cover-up within the corrections system.
“Now, that culture of cover-up doesn’t necessarily go to every single officer in the corrections agency or in the prison system. There are many good people who work in the prison system but to think this footage has not only been withheld from the former corrections minister and myself and many officials in government to me says that this culture of cover-up doesn’t just go back to 2010, which the footage shows, but goes back way beyond then.”
The Four Corners footage has been referred to the NT police commissioner, Reece Kershaw, who has set up a special task force, led by the specific reference unit and supported by major crime detectives.
Kershaw says a review of police investigations involving the youths involved in the 2014 tear gassing will reach as far back as 2010: “We will be relying and working with corrections to ensure that all the footage and all the images are obtained so that our investigators can review it thoroughly.”
Adam Giles, NT chief minister, takes over corrections portfolio
Adam Giles, the NT chief minister, confirms a full investigation will be undertaken over the “horrific” revelations of Four Corners’ investigation last night.
He has acknowledged a “culture of cover-up” within the system.
The royal commission confirmed by the PM earlier today will be jointly managed and funded by federal and state authorities. A final report will be published early next year, after an interim report is due in September.
The NT government will also build a new detention facility, planning for which will begin immediately.
The solicitor representing Dylan Voller, the teenager photographed strapped to a chair on Four Corners, has expanded on his suit against the NT government.
Peter O’Brien is representing Voller and Jake Roper, 16, against the NT government “for assault, battery and false imprisonment arising from their treatment within the NT youth detention system”.
Voller is currently in “a form of segregated imprisonment” in an adult prison.
“He must be released immediately,” O’Brien says. “The impact of these years of brutalisation must be immediately measured and he needs immediate assistance.”
The territory’s defence is that the state is not vicariously liable for the actions of the guards, he says. “That is their defence, a matter we dispute, and to be determined by the court.”
The NT chief minister, Adam Giles, is expected to hold a press conference any minute now. It will be broadcast on ABC News 24 and I’ll update you here as well.
Calls for John Elferink to resign
Scott Morrison, the treasurer, insists the government’s response isn’t limited to a royal commission.
“It will also require immediate responses and I have no doubt they’re the details that will be worked through with the Northern Territory government, the prime minister and the attorney general,” he told 2GB radio.
“I think you’ve got to deal with what is clearly a broader systemic issue.”
Meanwhile, there seems to be growing momentum for John Elferink, the NT corrections minister – who also serves as the state’s attorney-general and its justice minister and its children and families minister and its health minister and its disability services minister and its mental health services minister – to resign.
Sarah Henderson, the Liberal MP, tweeted saying he “must go”.
The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander social justice commissioner, Mick Gooda, believes the same.
The NT’s opposition leader, Michael Gunner, said he had previously called for Elferink to be sacked “over this and other failings ... It would only be the decent and right thing.”
Ruth Barson, director of legal advocacy at the Human Rights Law Centre, which has been involved in advocating for the Don Dale detainees, told ABC News 24 it was “implausible” that Elferink did not know about this abuse.
“The NT government has known about this abuse for a number of years and it has done nothing and that inaction has allowed the abuse to continue. I think both for the young peoples’s sake and for the broader community’s sake, there need to be accountability from the top down.”
She stopped short of saying that Elferink should resign but she did note that there was a state election slated for the end of August: “The electorate will no doubt take this issue to the polls but I would have grave concerns if minister Elferink was to continue as attorney general after the election.”
Meanwhile, police were photographed visiting Elferink’s office this morning, reportedly over death threats he has received after the Four Corners report.
The Law Council is calling for the immediate closure of the Don Dale youth detention centre, which it said should have happened when the children’s commissioner report was first handed down in October last year.
To clarify, the Don Dale facility outside Darwin where the six youths were teargassed two years ago was closed down immediately after the incident. Detainees were moved to a former adult prison in December 2014, which was repurposed as the new Don Dale: same name, same street but a different facility.
At the time the adults were transferred out of it to a new jail outside of Darwin, the then corrections commissioner, Ken Middlebrook, said the facility was “only fit for a bulldozer”.
Justice agencies and lawyers have repeatedly called for it to be closed in favour of building a new facility or fixing up the old Don Dale. But the state government has refused for reasons of cost.
(You can read about this period in this wide-ranging feature by my colleague, Darwin correspondent Helen Davidson.)
Arthur Moses, the director of the council, said the treatment of youth in detention was “a national crisis”.
“We need to get to the bottom of what appears to be a deeply ingrained culture of accepting the abuse of children in detention.”
The Law Council has also called for action to be taken against detention centre staff engaging in abuse and the Northern Territory government to ensure the complete compliance with the recommendations of the children’s commissioner report.
Those included proper recruitment and training of youth justice officers, best practice standards around the use of restraints and support programs for juveniles in detention.
Prof Hickie’s warning of the consequences of incarceration of troubled youth is echoed by Elaine Pearson, the director of Human Rights Watch Australia.
“What happened at Don Dale and Berrimah is a classic example of how not to deal with troubled youth. Excessive use of force, isolation and shackling of children is barbaric and inhumane. What makes it even more appalling is that the NT’s children’s commissioner exposed some of these issues last year, and yet the abusive practices persist.”
The inadequate training of the officers involved in the teargassing incident at Don Dale isn’t the only issue at hand, she says – the perpetrators of abuse, such as individual officers who used excessive force, must be held to account.
And, more broadly: “Better alternatives to locking kids up for prolonged periods must be found.”
Human Rights Watch Australia urged Malcolm Turnbull to act on abuse in juvenile detention in the wake of that report into the incident at the Don Dale facility, put out by the children’s commissioner in October last year.
Rereading its account now, it’s a reminder that several key details of the Four Corners report have been in the public record for some months.
Prof Ian Hickie, co-director of the Brain and Mind Centre at Sydney University, says the young victims of abuse in juvenile detention are likely to suffer from “profound” long-term psychological impacts.
Many young people in detention already have major behaviour problems, which are only compounded by institutional settings. The “physical and emotional mistreatment” is never justified, he says.
“What is clear is that these officers lack a systemic or informed set of behavioural responses to young people in trouble. This type of behaviour is common in institutional environments: particularly those not subject to external scrutiny.
“What is clear is that we should not be relying on institutional settings to deal with young people with major behavioural problems. The long-term psychological impacts of such abuse are likely to be profound.”
Stan Grant gives voice to what many Australians will be feeling today:
I could call this anger. I could tell of rage. I could describe a suffocating, nauseating hopelessness. I feel all of that, my mood swinging between despair and resignation.
The images of those boys on my television screen – teargassed, beaten, held down, locked up, hooded. These boys that look like my boys.
I didn’t want to watch Four Corners last night. I knew what was to come. I couldn’t watch all of it. I got up, I walked around and every time I came back there was another boy talking about loneliness and depression and fear.
Things once seen cannot be unseen.
In a typically powerful opinion piece, Grant also remarked on the contrast in the conversation on the ABC’s Q&A, on after Four Corners:
After Four Corners I watched a little of the Q&A panel discuss the horrors of what they had seen. They discussed Indigenous incarceration, black deaths in custody. They answered questions about constitutional recognition.
They talked about the first peoples of this country and there wasn’t even an Indigenous person on the panel. Not one of them even mentioned how utterly inappropriate it is to be talking about us and not including us.
I just wanted to yell at the screen, get out of our lives!
The ignorant, the racist, the well-intentioned, whoever: just stop. Just for that moment I wanted them to stop.
For that moment recognition meant nothing to me.
Guardian Australia’s weekly write-up of Q&A is here.
Teenagers to sue the Northern Territory government – reports
Dylan Voller and Ethan Astral, the teenagers who appeared on the Four Corners report, are going to sue the NT government, the ABC reports.
Voller was the boy shown victimised by guards, assaulted, stripped naked, teargassed and eventually strapped to a chair for two hours on the program.
His sister Kira told ABC local radio earlier today that their family had authorised the release of the footage in a bid to achieve justice for her brother.
“He deserves his life back, he’s been in and out of jail from the age of 11, 10, and he’s 19 this year, that’s half of his whole life; he’s lost everything,” she said.
“What I’d really like to see is ... for them to take accountability for the fact that they damaged him a lot more than helped.”
Dr Stephen Gray, an associate of Monash University’s Castan Centre for Human Rights Law, says the revelations over the past 24 hours are an unsurprising outcome of the NT’s “strong law and order agenda and its culture of incarceration”.
“The detention centre images will damage Australia’s international standing, not to mention the Northern Territory’s position as a place that has supposedly emerged from the old cowboy culture.”
He says a royal commission alone is insufficient – what’s needed is a legislated target for reducing the NT’s “catastrophic” rates of incarceration of Indigenous people.
That figure rose by 41% after 2007, when it was already far higher than elsewhere in the country – even before the NT National Emergency Response (“the intervention”) was announced. As Gillian Triggs pointed out on ABC News 24, Indigenous people are 96% of the state’s juvenile detention population.
Like Triggs, Gray also believes the commission must look at conditions of detention right across the NT – even the rest of Australia (“the problems do not end at the border”) – instead of focusing on this particular incident two years ago at Don Dale.
This, also from Four Corners Sally Neighbour.
Sally Neighbour, the executive producer of Four Corners, has tweeted that Facebook has removed the clip from last night’s program.
I’ve contacted Facebook for comment.
From what I know of how Facebook handles disturbing content of this kind, it takes a fairly broad-brush approach in attempt to account for the differences in opinion among its 1.65 billion users.
Any content that is perceived to be in violation of its community standards risks being removed. Those do allow for “graphic images of public interest or concern, such as human rights abuses or acts of terrorism”, so this clip may have been removed in error.
That does happen, as Facebook acknowledges: “We review millions of reports each day and occasionally make mistakes.”
But if that’s the case here, the original post by Four Corners won’t be able to be restored: it will have to be uploaded again, meaning that reach and those shares – pretty key for “raising awareness”, insofar as whatever that will achieve – will be lost.
Here’s the relevant section of Facebook’s community standards:
Violence and Graphic Content
Facebook has long been a place where people share their experiences and raise awareness about important issues. Sometimes, those experiences and issues involve violence and graphic images of public interest or concern, such as human rights abuses or acts of terrorism. In many instances, when people share this type of content, they are condemning it or raising awareness about it. We remove graphic images when they are shared for sadistic pleasure or to celebrate or glorify violence.
When people share anything on Facebook, we expect that they will share it responsibly, including carefully choosing who will see that content. We also ask that people warn their audience about what they are about to see if it includes graphic violence.
Barnaby Joyce has said the plebiscite on same-sex marriage will take a backseat to the royal commission into juvenile detention.
Preempting criticism along these lines, he says it’s still a priority for this term of government – but maybe not this year. (Malcolm Turnbull told Leigh Sales the same last week, so it’s not necessarily in direct response to these revelations.)
On the abuse of teenagers in detention, Joyce says – one might say despite compelling evidence to the contrary – “this is not Australia”.
He also says he is confident that Nigel Scullion, the NT senator and Indigenous affairs minister, was not aware of the issues.
This from the SOS Blak Australia advocacy group.
Though Triggs was cautiously optimistic that the upcoming inquiry could effect change in the Northern Territory’s juvenile detention system, she did make a similar point – that it had been 25 years since the royal commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody.
Yet here we are.
The reaction continues to roll in on social media, with several raising questions about whether this could result in resignations within the state government.
Mick Gooda, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, tweeted this call for the entire body to be thrown out last night.
Gillian Triggs of the Australian Human Rights Commission said on ABC News 24 moments ago that it was not appropriate for her to comment on whether the state’s corrections minister, John Elferink, should resign.
But she did say that, despite making some effort to address the problem, “he does not appear to have understood the depth of the problem” at the former Don Dale juvenile detention facility in particular.
Gillian Triggs, the president of the Australian Human Rights Commission, has praised Malcolm Turnbull’s quick response to Four Corners’ investigation into allegations of abuse in juvenile detention in the Northern Territory last night.
“It’s the kind of leadership we need on an issue that’s been going on for a very long time.”
She agreed that she had been frustrated by the state government’s response to concerns over the treatment of young people in detention, which she had raised on a number of occasions in the past.
It had been an “ongoing matter” not only her as president of the HRC, but also for its respective commissioners on Aboriginal and Torres Strait islanders, as young people held in detention in the NT are disproportionately Indigenous.
98% of young people held in detention in the NT are Indigenous, compared to 48% across the whole of Australia, she said – and these children were “particularly vulnerable”.
Triggs was positive about Turnbull’s announcement of a royal commission this morning: “The tone was of a prime minister who wants to do something about it immediately.”
But she did question why past inquiries into tear gassing incident at the former Don Dale juvenile detention facility near Darwin did not yield the same findings as Four Corners’ investigation.
The CCTV footage broadcast showed “a completely different story” to that given by authorities of the incident, Triggs said – meaning either the inquiries did not have access to this information and footage, or did not seek it.
The royal commission will have legal powers to insist on that information, which she said will be “critically important”.
Triggs agreed with the prime minister that it was important that the response to the revelations was swift, with an interim report, then a consolidation of that report.
But she also was in favour of extending the scope of the commission to include national conditions for children in detention, perhaps in a second phase. “In some instances there are well-trained staff, good programs and good facilities – that must be acknowledged. But in other parts of Australia, they are very poor.”
Triggs was also in support of a national, federal approach to monitoring detention centres – and repercussions for the individual officers involved in the 2014 incident at Don Dale.
“Internationally and domestically, if you treat children this way, if you and I were to treat our children this way, we would be prosecuted criminally, and our children would be taken away from us. These children are in a loco parentis relationship with the state … and the officers should be responsible for the ways in which they have behaved.”
Gillian Triggs, the president of the Australian Human Rights Commission, is speaking on ABC 24 now.
The prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, is due to speak further on his call for a royal commission later today.
But for now I’ll hand over to my colleague, Elle Hunt, who is following Triggs’s interview.
The director of Human Rights Watch Australia, Elaine Pearson, said events at Don Dale and Berrimah youth detention centres were “a classic example or how not to deal with troubled youth.”
Excessive use of force, isolation and shackling of children is barbaric and inhumane. What makes it even more appalling is that the Northern Territory’s Children’s Commissioner exposed some of these issues last year, and yet the abusive practices persist.
This is not only a matter of training. Excessive force is an abuse and the perpetrators of such abuses should be held to account. Better alternatives to locking kids up for prolonged periods must be found. We welcome a royal commission into practices of juvenile detention to uncover the extent of this abuse, not just in the Northern Territory but in other parts of Australia.
The Red Cross has said the royal commission needs to explore alternatives to detention for young people.
Here’s community services director, Kerry McGrath:
We have just witnessed the abuse that children can experience in the prison system and it must stop now. Red Cross encourages the Northern Territory Government to establish interim independent monitoring of youth detention facilities pending the recommendations of a royal commission
Looking at how prisons are run is only half the solution. We also need better ways to keep kids out of prison in the first place, as well as help them reintegrate into the community afterwards,” said McGrath.
We need an honest conversation about rebalancing our justice system. Funds that now go into incarcerating kids can be better spent on community programs that help them stay out of trouble.
That’s the basic premise of the Justice Reinvestment program, which focuses on supporting young people rather than detaining them. Bill Shorten has said Labor supports the idea.
My colleague, Michael Safi, wrote about how Justice Reinvestment works in Bourke, NSW, last year.
Professor Megan Davis is the chair of the United Nations permanent forum on Indigenous peoples.
She said this, in response to the announcement of a royal commission.
Labor’s Indigenous MP, past and present, have weighed in.
If you missed Four Corners last night, here is the footage.
I am the Minister for Corrections, not the minister for kicking the shit out of people.
That was the NT correctional services minister, John Elferink, responding to the Four Corners program.
Labor senator Pat Dodson said this morning that the NT attorney-general, or whoever was responsible for youth detention in the territory, should resign immediately. That call could include Elferink.
Dodson was one of five commissioners in the 1991 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, which celebrated, if such a word can be used for what was a rather depressing milestone, it’s 25th anniversary this year.
He told the National Press Club, a few days before the anniversary, that the situation had gotten worse. The incarceration rate of Indigenous Australians has doubled since 1991.
For the vast bulk of our people, the legal system is not a trusted instrument of justice. It is a feared and despised processing plant that propels the most vulnerable and disabled of our people towards a broken, bleak future. Surely as a nation we are better than this. We need a smarter form of justice that takes us beyond a narrow-eyed focus on punishment and penalties.
Ben Wyatt responded to my question.
Ben Wyatt, a Labor state MP from Western Australia, tweeted his thoughts on the royal commission this morning.
WA actually has a higher rate of Indigenous youth imprisonment than the NT, on a population basis. According to a report by Amnesty International, released last year, Indigenous children aged 10 to 17 are 53 times more likely to be imprisoned than non-Indigenous children of the same age, compared to a national rate of Indigenous children being 26 times more likely to be imprisoned.
A number of people have said this morning that the proposed royal commission should be expanded to include youth detention centres in WA and Queensland, where, it is alleged, children are also mistreated.
I asked Ben if he would like to see the royal commission expanded to include WA. Will let you know if I get a response.
Priscilla Collins, the chief executive of the North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency (NAAJA), also says the government would have seen that footage before.
But reading a report and seeing the footage, and hearing first hand accounts from the children involved, are very different things. Four Corners presenter Sarah Ferguson compared the images to footage from Guantánamo Bay or the Abu Ghraib.
The NT chief minister, Adam Giles, said yesterday that he was “shocked and disgusted” by the footage, and that “a community is judged by the way it treats its children and serious questions were raised”.
He then said:
Equally the Northern Territory government does not resile from its tough approach to those who don’t want to respect other people’s property or safety.
Dr Howard Bath, the former NT children’s commissioner, told Radio National this morning that the “tough on crime” approach was part of the problem.
That report into Don Dale was fairly widely reported.
Let’s look at a bit of background. My colleague, Helen Davidson, wrote about the treatment of children at Don Dale detention centre in October last year, as part of a broader look at Aboriginal children in detention in the NT.
Her report mentioned the tear gassing incident, which was detailed in a government report.
Jail and youth detention statistics in Australia paint a wearily familiar picture of Indigenous disadvantage but in the territory they are catastrophic.
Its imprisonment rate is massively disproportionate to the rest of the country – 838.3 for every 100,000 compared with 187.3 nationally in 2013-14. The over-representation of Indigenous juveniles nationally – 24 times the rate of the general population – is magnified in the territory, where about 96% of the incarcerated population is Indigenous.
You can read Helen’s full piece here.
Dr Howard Bath, the former Northern Territory children’s commissioner, has told Radio National that politicians and senior members of the Department of Corrections would have seen the footage of children being tear-gassed at Don Dale detention centre before the Four Corners report aired.
That’s a significant allegation, because both the prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, and the NT chief minister, Adam Giles, said this morning that a royal commission was necessary to examine why revelations about this kind of treatment of detainees was not included in previous government reports.
First to footage of incidents prior to the tear gassing incident in August 2014. How does Bath know people saw the footage?
Bath: “I showed them the videos.”
Ellen Fanning: “And who did you show?”
Bath: “Senior officers from the department at the time.”
What about the footage of the August 2014 tear gassing incident, recorded in official reports as a “riot”?
Fanning: “Was there any additional footage presented on 4 corners last night that NT elected officials and NT bureaucrats didn’t know about?”
Bath: “As far as I know, no.”
Most of the material that you saw last night on Four Corners was available to the government.
Malcolm Turnbull has announced a royal commission into youth detention in the Northern Territory, focusing on the Don Dale detention centre, after a Four Corners report showing shocking footage of children being tear gassed, restrained, and kept in solitary confinement aired last night.
It has been broadly welcomed, but there are a number of questions kicking around this morning. Namely: what took the government so long?